Scared suburbia finds peace of mind in private security Neighborhood patrols: Fear of crime has communities turning to private companies for added protection. Such security firms could be the wave of the future.

April 01, 1996|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Michael Kaminkow was in his kitchen when he heard the sound of one car starting, then another. On a Sunday morning on a posh suburban lane, thieves were driving his Lexus and his Infiniti from his two-car garage.

After calling 911, he dialed one more number -- and a teen-ager answered the car phone to taunt him with the words: "The Lexus drives tight, man."

It was infuriating, it was frightening and it was enough to prompt Mr. Kaminkow and his neighbors to hire private security patrols for the Anton Woods community.

That upscale neighborhood is one of about a dozen in northwest Baltimore County to hire private patrols in recent years -- signaling a trend that could shape the way suburbia is policed.

As suburban communities hire private patrols, mirroring city neighborhoods such as Guilford and Charles Village, security companies are vying for a piece of the action.

And nowhere is the trend more apparent than in the Pikesville and Greenspring Valley areas, where households pay as much DTC as $2,000 a year for added peace of mind.

Baltimore-area security companies also report a marked increase in service inquiries, with calls coming from Bel Air to Columbia. It's an interest, security professionals say, that will lead to more business.

"I've seen it pop up all over," said David Carter, a Michigan State University professor and director of the National Center for Community Policing. "Police departments all over say that they're seeing the growth of security in their areas."

Michael Scott, chief of police in the southern Florida community of Lauderhill, says he needs to look no farther than his local Yellow Pages -- where 47 security companies are listed -- to know private security in suburbia is the wave of the future.

Baltimore County Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill agrees, saying, "I see the trend continuing as government tries to downsize with fiscal problems. I see the private sector filling some of the void. I think that what's driving it, clearly, is the fear of crime."

But even as the security patrols calm residents' fears, their use raises questions about the future of suburban law enforcement.

How will the patrols work with police? Will their rights and responsibilities change as they become a neighborhood's most visible anti-crime presence? And, as Chief Gambrill asks: "Will the public police become the police for the poor, and the private police become the police of the affluent?"

Indeed, the guards from Arrington and Soistman Security patrol some of the area's most affluent communities. Neighborhoods such as Anton Woods, with sprawling contemporaries, and Anton North, with million-dollar mansions, attract gawkers who just want to see the houses.

But retired Baltimore County police Officer Frank Soistman said some who pass through the neighborhoods are car thieves treating the neighborhood as a showroom.

"They're window-shopping," he said. "They look at what cars are being left in the driveways."

On a recent Tuesday night, Steve Wittler, a 30-year-old guard for Arrington and Soistman, sat behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Caprice with a green light flashing through the rear window. He watched over the entrance to Anton Woods. He was not armed.

It was a quiet night. Still, Mr. Wittler recorded the tag number of every car that entered the neighborhood. His company's policy is to follow any unfamiliar car into the neighborhood and stick with it until it leaves.

The guards, who make $8 an hour, don't stop cars, but sometimes the drivers pull over to ask why they are being followed -- or to accuse the guards of racism.

"They want to know why they can't go down a public street," Mr. Wittler said. "I say, 'The residents don't mind if you look at the houses, just do it during the day.' " They don't want to leave, we'll just call the county [police]."

Thieves' target

Like other area neighborhoods, Anton Woods hired patrols after being besieged for more than a year by three loosely aligned bands of brazen, teen-age auto thieves. Drawn to the area by the many luxury cars -- and its quick access to the Beltway and roads such as Park Heights Avenue -- the Baltimore teens stole cars from garages and from driveways where they were left to warm up on winter mornings.

They also accosted, threatened and robbed residents. When police chased them, car crashes and gunplay followed.

"It went beyond the normal auto theft with these guys," said Gerry D'Angelo, a Baltimore County detective and a member of a city-county auto theft task force. "They looked for the thrill that went with it, and the violence that often comes with that."

The problem has been virtually eradicated -- Detective D'Angelo said auto thefts in the Pikesville and Greenspring areas dropped from 34 in three months, when the band was active, to 15 in six months after many of the leaders and members were arrested. Still, Anton Woods resident Ira Friedman says there are no plans to drop the patrols.

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